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Innovation Fueled by Disruption

My Marts&Lundy colleagues and I work alongside many outstanding nonprofit organizations, partnering to help meet their strategic and fundraising goals. We are inspired by their examples of creative thinking and resiliency. Nonprofits are not exempt from numerous disruptive factors in recent few years – ranging from the pandemic response and supply chain issues to the “great resignation” and recession worries. Each news cycle presents new challenges that pose very real threats to the future security of the very institutions that become so critical in times of extreme need.

Even with some real headwinds, many of our clients were able to take on challenges and create creative, even transformative outcomes.  Let’s look at a few of these successes.

Despite local wildfires and mudslides, leadership transitions, a sexual assault allegation, and a global pandemic, The Thacher School grew its alumni participation rates from 47 to 55 percent in 2020. Even more impressive, it achieved a 76 percent increase in giving rates from graduates of the last decade. What drove this growth? A past parent offered an innovative matching gift program that triggered a donation to a local food bank anytime a young alumnus made a gift of any size. This transformed the case for support as each gift not only helped Thacher, but it also tied to giving to an urgent need in the community. The school’s strategy wisely appealed to a generation interested in impactful giving and strengthened engagement with a group likely to contain many of Thacher’s future major donors.

Literally in the pandemic’s epicenter, the Mount Sinai Health System experienced enterprise-wide impact as COVID-19 took hold in New York. While navigating a myriad of challenges — from canceling planned events to vetting thousands of offers of gifts-in-kind — Mount Sinai’s advancement team jump-started its efforts in social media fundraising. Running with an idea brought forward by a board member, they developed a Flowcode (a dynamic QR code) that went viral. It was shared by celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Kim Kardashian and networks including the Discovery Channel and CNN. Ultimately, this opened access to completely new audiences for Mount Sinai, enabling the System to attract $1.4 million of real cash gifts and 10,000 new donors in a very short period of time. This initiative, combined with other efforts, enabled the System to raise over $100 million for clinical and research efforts during the heart of the pandemic. The willingness to try new things in the midst of a crisis combined with a close partnership between advancement team, leadership, and board were key components their success.

In response to the renewed call for social justice following the death of George Floyd, the Florida International University (FIU) Foundation strengthened its commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. One of the most important actions it took was the formation of the FIU Foundation Office of Inclusive Philanthropy (FOIP). FOIP “seeks to achieve systemic change though philanthropy – to generate support for people, programs, and research at FIU that will accelerate equitable opportunities, build inclusive communities, and create a culture of belonging for all people.” In addition to affecting change at FIU, FOIP is sharing the insights gained through its work with other nonprofits. FIU has launched a micro-credentialing program focused on DEI in fundraising. Participants walk away with the tools to start a similar movement at their institutions.

At the oldest farmer’s market in the country, The Henry Ford was preparing an in-person event to kick-off a campaign priority when the pandemic hit. The Henry Ford had to pivot quickly. In addition to planning an incredibly successful virtual event, The Henry Ford formed the Carver-Carson Society to support neighbors in need, to “provide financial support for agricultural and foodways initiatives throughout Greenfield Village, including the Detroit Central Farmers Market.” This new society was a huge hit and attracted so much support that The Henry Ford raised six times more than their original goal before the virtual event was held. Today, the society continues to grow and has over 100 members.

The Hill School broke its record for new gift pledges in 2020, and then broke it again in 2021. The School credits these record-breaking years to a change in its annual appeal approach that was spurred on by the need to pivot and innovate during the pandemic. The Hill reduced the number of written appeals and focused instead on meeting individually with members of the leadership giving society and each of their current full-pay parents. This strategy enabled the School to focus on educating its best donors on the importance of the annual fund, the value of the flexible dollar, and showing how leadership gifts that increase the School’s operational budget have an incredible impact. These efforts paid off in both increased support and stronger donor relationships.

With the onset of COVID-19 restrictions, all nonprofits faced the task of pivoting to virtual platforms and digital engagement. Among many examples of creative approaches to this challenge is Michigan Medicine’s “Well Aware” webinar series, which proved to be a great engagement tool that continues to this day. Facilitated by the Office of Development, this series provides participants with access to experts who cover a range of topics, from food allergies and cancer to telehealth and returning to an in-person workplace. Hundreds of donors attend the webinars (with each receiving a personal thank you from a gift officer), and the recordings are viewed by thousands.

Among the many nonprofits with stories about the unexpected success of virtual events during 2020 is The Washington Ballet and its annual gala. Celebrating its 75th anniversary, the Ballet had planned to welcome 600 guests to the gala for a night of live performances, a three-course meal, an awards ceremony, and a dance party. Instead, they transitioned everything on-line and created an engaging virtual experience that not only held the audience’s attention but was watched by roughly 36,000 people across the world. As a bonus, the Ballet was able to repurpose the recorded content to promote its upcoming virtual season.

These success stories remind us that disruptions can be important drivers of innovation. Change is inevitable, and your organization will face threats of both internal and external origin. As crucial as your annual operating plan is to your success, so is your response to unanticipated risks and challenges. Here are some tips to ensure your institution continues to enhance its approaches – whether you are operating in uncertain times or not.

Build a culture that values collaboration between leadership, staff, board members, volunteers, and donors. Innovation often arises when diverse perspectives come together.

Make time for regular brainstorming and blue-sky thinking. Don’t wait for annual “planning season” or for renewal of your accreditation to do this. What is your $1 million+ idea?

Engage key stakeholders, staff, and community members in discussion about the challenges and opportunities they see for your institution. Engage in scenario-planning in the face of threats or changes to your ongoing plan. Ask yourselves, what’s the worst that can happen? And then create a response to that.

Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks and try new things. Don’t be reckless but do try new and innovative approaches.  

Keep a focus on continuous improvement and find ways to incentivize creative problem solving.

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